Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whichcote, Benjamin

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WHICHCOTE or WHITCHCOTE, BENJAMIN (1609–1683), provost of King's College, Cambridge, was the sixth son of Christopher Whichcote of Whichcote Hall in the parish of Stoke in Shropshire, where he was born on 4 May 1609 (Baker MS. vi. 82 b). His mother, whose name was Elizabeth, was the daughter of Edward Fox of Greet in the same county (Salter, Pref. to Eight Letters, &c., p.xvi). On 25 Oct. 1626 he was admitted a pensioner at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on which occasion his name in the entry in the register is spelt ' Whitchcote.' His college tutor was Anthony Tuckney [q. v.], a divine with whose subsequent career his own became closely interwoven. In 1629–30 he was admitted B.A., proceeded M.A. in 1633, in which year also he was elected a fellow of his college. According to his biographer, he was ordained by John Williams [q. v.], bishop of Lincoln, on 5 March 1636, ‘both deacon and priest;’ ‘which irregularity,’ says Salter, ‘I know not how to account for in a prelate so obnoxious to the ruling powers both in church and state’ (ib. p. xvii). In the same year he was appointed to the important post of Sunday afternoon lecturer at Trinity Church in Cambridge, a post which he continued to fill for nearly twenty years. About this time he received also his licence as university preacher.

His discourses at Trinity Church, which were largely attended by the university, survive only in the form of notes, but it was through these that he attained his chief contemporary celebrity. It was his aim ‘to turn men's minds away from polemical argumentation to the great moral and spiritual realities lying at the basis of all religion—from the “forms of words” to “the inwards of things” and “the reason of them”’ (Letters, p. 108).

In 1634 he succeeded to the office of college tutor, in which capacity ‘he was famous for the number, rank, and character of his pupils, and the care he took of them.’ Among those who afterwards attained to distinction were John Smith (1618–1652) [q. v.] of Queens', John Worthington [q. v.], John Wallis (1616–1703) [q. v.], the mathematician, and Samuel Cradock.

In 1640 he proceeded B.D.; in 1641 his candidature for the divinity chair at Gresham College was defeated by Thomas Horton (Ward, Gresham Professors, p. 65); and in 1643 his college presented him to the rectory of North Cadbury in Somerset. He now married Rebecca, widow of Matthew Cradock, governor of Massachusetts, and retired to Cadbury. In 1644, however, he was summoned back to the university by the Earl of Manchester, to be installed as provost of King's College in the place of the ejected Dr. Samuel Collins [q. v.] His honourable character and scrupulous nature were shown by the reluctance with which he at length, under considerable pressure, consented to supplant one whom he highly respected, as well as by the generosity which led him to stipulate that his predecessor should continue to receive a moiety of the stipend attaching to the provostship (Pref. &c. pp. xviii, xix). The arguments pro and con by which he ultimately arrived at the conclusion that duty required his acceptance of the post were committed by him to writing and are printed in Heywood (King's College Statutes, p. 290) from Baker MS. vi. 90. Alone among the newly installed heads of colleges at Cambridge he refused to take the covenant; he is even said to have ‘prevailed to have the greatest part of the fellows of King's College exempted from that imposition, and preserved them in their places’ (Tillotson, Sermon, p. 23).

In July 1649 he was created D.D. by mandate; about this time he resigned his Somerset living, but was soon afterwards presented by his college to the rectory of Milton in Cambridgeshire, which he continued to hold as long as he lived (Pref. p. xxii). In November 1650 he was elected vice-chancellor of the university, and while filling this office preached at the Cambridge commencement (July 1651) a sermon which was the occasion of a notable correspondence between himself and his former tutor, Tuckney (now master of Emmanuel). These letters, eight in number, were edited and published in 1753 by Dr. Salter, a grandson of Dr. Jeffery, Whichcote's nephew and editor; and an analysis and criticism of the same will be found in Tulloch's ‘Rational Theology’ (ii. 59–84). Generally speaking, they represent the main points at issue between a staunch and able upholder of the puritan orthodoxy as formulated in the Westminster confession, and one whose aim it was to bring about a fuller recognition of the claims of private judgment and of ‘the rationality of Christian doctrine.’ Rudely challenged at the outset, Whichcote's views eventually resulted in a movement represented by the body known as the Cambridge Platonists and, in a wider circle, as the Latitudinarians, a remarkable school of writers and thinkers for whom Burnet claims the high credit of having saved the church from losing her esteem throughout the kingdom.

In 1654, on the occasion of the peace with Holland, Whichcote appears as one of the contributors to the volume of verses (‘Oliva Pacis’) composed by members of the university to celebrate the event, and dedicated to Cromwell. In December 1655 he was invited by Cromwell to advise him, in conjunction with Cudworth and others, on the question of tolerating the Jews (Crossley's note to Worthington's Diary, i. 79). In 1659 he combined with Cudworth, Tuckney, and other Cambridge divines, in supporting Matthew Poole's scheme for the maintaining of students of ‘choice ability at the university, and principally in order to the ministry’ (see Poole, Matthew; Autobiogr. of Matthew Robinson, ed. Mayor, p. 193).

At the Restoration Whichcote shared the fate of the other heads of colleges who had been installed under puritan influences, and was ejected, not without resistance on his part, from his provostship, his successor being James Fleetwood [q. v.] of Edgehill celebrity. According to a letter written by Whichcote himself to Lauderdale, one of the objections urged against him had been that he had never been a fellow of the society (Dawson Turner MS. No. 648). Among those whom he befriended about the time of this crisis was Samuel Hartlib [q. v.], with whom he frequently corresponded (Worthington, Diary, Chetham Soc., vols. i. ii. passim). His compliance with the Act of Uniformity restored him to court favour, and in November 1662 he was appointed to the cure of St. Anne's, Blackfriars. When the church was burnt down in the Great Fire he retired to his living at Milton, and continued to reside there for some years; he ‘preached constantly, relieved the poor, had their children taught to reade at his own charge, and made up differences among the neighbours’ (Tillotson, Sermon, p. 24). In 1668 his friend Dr. John Wilkins [q. v.] was appointed to the bishopric of Chester, thereby vacating the vicarage of St. Lawrence Jewry, to which, by his interest, Whichcote was now appointed. The church, however, had to be rebuilt, and during the work, which occupied some seven years, he preached regularly before the corporation at Guildhall Chapel. In a letter written to Sancroft on 24 Dec. 1670 he gives an account of his services both to literature and to the church. In 1674, along with Tillotson and Stillingfleet, he co-operated with certain nonconformists in furthering Thomas Gouge's efforts to extend education in Wales.

In 1683 Whichcote was at Cambridge on a visit to Cudworth at Christ's College, when he took cold and eventually died. He was interred in St. Lawrence Church, where his funeral sermon was preached by Tillotson on 24 May. His epitaph is printed in Strype's ‘Stow’ (iii. 47–8). There are portraits of him in the provost's lodge at King's College and in the gallery and hall of Emmanuel, the last being noted by Dr. Westcott as especially ‘characteristic.’ He was a benefactor to the university library and also to King's and Emmanuel, at which last society he had founded, before his death, scholarships to the value of 1,000l., ‘bearing the name of William Larkin, who, making him his executor, entrusted him with the said summe to dispose of to pious uses at his own discretion’ (Baker MS. B 89).

Whichcote left no children; his executors were his two nephews, the sons of Sir Jeremy Whichcote of the Inner Temple and deputy lieutenant of Middlesex. His sister Anne married Thomas Hayes, and was the mother of Philemon Hayes, minister of Childs Ercall (Owen and Blakeway, Hist. of Shrewsbury, i. 408 n. 7).

An able estimate of his merits as a divine, from the pen of Dr. Westcott, will be found in ‘Masters of Theology,’ ed. Barry, London, 1877.

Whichcote's works (all published posthumously) are: 1. ‘Theophoroumena Dogmata; or, some Select Notions of that Learned and Reverend Divine of the Church of England, Benj. Whichcote, D.D. Faithfully collected from him by a Pupil and particular Friend of his,’ London, 1685. 2. ‘A Treatise of Devotion, with Morning and Evening Prayer for all the Days of the Week,’ 1697 (attributed to him, but no copy is known to exist). 3. ‘Select Sermons,’ with a preface by the third Earl of Shaftesbury, author of the ‘Characteristics,’ 1698; reprinted at Edinburgh in 1742 by Principal Wishart. 4. ‘Several Discourses [ten in number], examined and corrected by his own Notes, and published by John Jeffery, D.D., archdeacon of Norwich,’ London, 1701. 5. ‘The True Notion of Place in the Kingdom or Church of Christ, stated by the late Dr. Whitchcot in a Sermon [on James iii. 18] preach'd by him on the malignity of Popery. Examined and corrected by J. Jeffery,’ London, 1717. 6. ‘The Works of the learned Benjamin Whichcote, D.D., rector of St. Lawrence Jewry, London,’ 4 vols.; Aberdeen, 1751 (contains only the discourses). 7. ‘Moral and Religious Aphorisms: collected from the manuscript Papers of the Reverend and Learned Doctor Whichcote, and published in MDCCIII by Dr. Jeffery. Now republished, with very large additions from the Transcripts of the latter, by Samuel Salter, D.D. … to which are added Eight Letters, which passed between Dr. Whichcote, provost of King's College, and Dr. Tuckney, master of Emmanuel College,’ London, 1753.

[Preface to the Eight Letters by Salter, pp. xvi–xxviii; Tillotson's Sermon preached at the Funeral of the Reverend Benjamin Whichcot (with portrait), London, 1683; Tulloch's Rational Theology in England in the Seventeenth Century, ii. 2; unpublished notes by Professor J. E. B. Mayor in his Cambridge in the Reign of Queen Anne, pp. 297–306; information kindly afforded by the master of Emmanuel College.]

J. B. M.